Understanding difference between asymptomatic and presymptomatic people with COVID-19

La Crosse infection expert explains World Health Organization's clarification about asymptomatic spread of COVID-19
Asymptomatic Covid

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Rules and recommendations seem to change every week when it comes to COVID-19. The World Health Organization said asymptomatic patients may not be as contagious as previously thought. However, there was some miscommunication with comments made Monday.

“Every day is a new day,” said Megan Meller, an infection control practitioner at Gundersen Health System.

Change is hard. We know. We’ve experienced four months of adjustment.

“Everything changes so fast,” Meller said. “It’s so rapid. It’s been rapid since the beginning back in March.”

What’s even more difficult is change that comes by the day and the constant confusion as to what we are supposed to do to stay safe. The World Health Organization added to that confusion this week when Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said spread is “very rare” for asymptomatic patients.

“It still appears to be rare that an asymptomatic individual actually transmits onward,” Van Kerkhove said during a news conference Monday. “What we really want to be focused on is following the symptomatic cases.”

The World Health Organization clarified its comments Tuesday because people can also be presymptomatic.

“Presymptomatic means you don’t have symptoms yet, but you will develop them say in a day or two. But you’re infectious during that period,” Meller said.

Meller said people may think they don’t have symptoms but even a mild cough can count.

“If I said, ‘I’m asymptomatic but yeah I did have a runny nose a few days ago. But … it was just allergies, but I was positive,'” she said. “That’s what makes this kind of pandemic really hard to kind of piece apart.”

She understands people’s frustration when messages from health experts are inconsistent and blurry.

“Trying to keep up with all the influx of information, that constant state of learning, can seem like whiplash for the general public,”

She says this pandemic is so new and medical professionals don’t know what they don’t know.

That is why they take an abundance of caution. Because the consequences of being too careful are far less severe than the alternative.

“It really underscores the importance of social distancing and wearing (a) face covering,” she said. “Because it really helps then reduce that risk no matter what.”

The world health Organization estimates 16 percent of asymptomatic people can pass along the virus. Meller said some models show anywhere from 40-60 percent.
La Crosse County Health Director Jen Rombalski will speak on this issue Wednesday.